Published Online: August 8, 2007

Ask the Mentor

Getting Ready for the School Year: Part III

The Mentor
Coleen Armstrong taught secondary school for 31 years in Hamilton, Ohio. She hosted a TV talk-show that covered education issues from 1990-1999 and in 2002, co-authored Please Don’t Call My Mother: How Schools and Parents Can Work to Get Kids Back on Track. She has won state and national recognition as a teacher, including being named one of five finalists for the National Teachers Hall of Fame in 1996. Armstrong’s recent book, The Truth About Teaching: What I Wish the Veterans Had Told Me, is a 2007 first-place divisional winner for the Benjamin Franklin Award. A self-described “love letter” to new teachers, Armstrong’s book offers those just starting out a quick course in appreciating the most mundane tasks and coping with the greatest challenges.

Coleen Armstrong
Coleen Armstrong
—Photo by William A. Windom

I’m a resource teacher. What are some good strategies for working with general educators to implement inclusion when some teachers are reluctant?

General educators are reluctant only because they’re afraid it will increase their workload. So when you check in, you might give them a few simple power-and-control choices: Should you two communicate by phone, by personal visit, or by e-mail? Should they fill out evaluation sheets, or should you show up carrying a clipboard?

Getting Ready for the School Year: Previous Installments
In her first and second installments, Coleen Armstrong answered questions from readers about, handling gossip, accommodating ADD/ADHD students, motivating kids to read, and more. Read Parts I and II.

Also, it would help to bring the students around before classes start. Introduce them, tell the teachers what makes each one special, express how much each child is looking forward to inclusion. This can result in some real magic. Unless a teacher has a heart of stone, he or she will be instantly charmed. Suddenly a bit of extra work doesn’t seem like such a hurdle after all. The child has become a person, not just another name on a seating chart.

Throughout the year, whenever you stop by, say something positive about how much Kelly or Sam is enjoying the class. It will be true. Kids with special needs are thrilled to be included. And few teachers can resist a genuine compliment.

I just finished my first year of teaching special education in a self-contained 5th-9th grade classroom. I am in the process of securing another teaching position in special education, grades 4th-8th. How do I prepare for the new year, when I don't yet know where or what I'll be teaching?

I’ll tell you a secret. The “where” and the “what” are the least of your concerns. That’s about grade level and subject matter—in other words, lesson planning. What’s far more essential is examining which of your approaches, attitudes, philosophies, and techniques were effective, which ones weren’t, and what made the difference.

Use your remaining downtime to sit outside with a beer or lemonade, stare at the trees, and rethink the past school year. Were you too strict? Too lenient? Were expectations too high? Too low? (Chances are, a mix of both.) Recall every interpersonal clash. What might have prevented it? What better strategy would have sent everyone home smiling?

Your answers won’t always come quickly or easily. That’s one reason we need summers! But once inspiration hits, your mind will be crackling with excitement. Then, the lesson planning stage will be a cinch.

I'd like some advice for room arrangement and organization. What can I do to give my 1st grade room and walls a bright, welcoming appearance?

Are you allowed to paint? I hope so. It creates an instant overhaul. I like soft brights which will expand your space, like orchid, banana and pale lime, rather than cobalt or nutmeg. Or, God forbid, beige. Hire a couple of teenagers and pay them with all the fast food burgers they can eat.

If painting walls isn’t possible, perhaps your principal will okay your painting just the bulletin boards. Hit any nearby college town for posters of baby animals. Check teacher Web sites for creative ideas regarding hanging outstanding work and kids’ personality profiles.

Next, take out a sheet of graph paper. Lay down white cutouts in the shapes of your work tables, file cabinets, and student desks. Be sure to get the scale right. Play around a bit—try placing your desk dead center, the work tables along the perimeter, and student desks inside the square in groups of three or four. Even after you’ve hit on a layout you like, switch things around seasonally so no one gets bored.

There’s nothing duller than that traditional setup of teacher facing six long rows of six seats apiece. You can do better.

I am caught in a political crossfire. The new principal of our school has asked me to mentor the new instructional facilitator, who is replacing me in that job, although I will remain at the school in a different capacity. Our principal has expressed concern that because the new facilitator is young, some of our staff will not view her as an instructional leader, and so he wants me to "mentor" her. This is not part of my job description, but may be the best for our school. What should I do?

It’s easy to see why your principal has paid you the enormous compliment of entrusting you with this person’s future. Your choice of words, “best for our school,” speaks volumes. No, this really isn’t your job. But since you’ve been drafted, you’ll find a way to make it work.

Be aware, however, that your principal’s fear will probably come to pass. The staff may stonewall this young facilitator, bait her, or even harass her. She could be in for a very rough year. So the first thing you’ll need to do is prepare her for that possibility. Then show her some ways to gain credibility—like citing research and soliciting comment, spearheading discussions rather than leading or dictating, and offering staff just enough ownership that they don’t feel they’re being controlled.

At the same time, I would caution you not to give away the farm by becoming her guru. It smacks of “All About Eve” (1950), where the protégée eventually becomes the star but believes she rose to the top on her own merits. Yes, I’ve seen it happen, even in education. Don’t hand your wisdom and experience to her on a platter; let her find her own, lest she grow complacent—or worse, feel entitled to borrow your brain on a regular basis. Your goal is to guide, but only briefly, and then to step back. In other words, gradually make yourself obsolete.

And every time she comes to you weeping, give her a gentle shake by inquiring, “Okay. What are you learning from this?” Someday she’ll look back and realize that you presented her with a huge gift—the ability to self-evaluate and move on, rather than just wallow.

I'm an older teacher, entering the profession as a second career. How do you suggest that I prepare for and ace an interview?

You’ll likely be asked questions, which examine one central issue: What can you bring to this very demanding table? Answers: Maturity and experience, which means you don’t get ruffled or feel overwhelmed easily. Wisdom and insight, which means you recognize that acting out and becoming belligerent are primarily due to fear and loss of power. Perseverance, which means you won’t run howling into the parking lot when you discover how difficult the job really is. If you’ve raised a couple of kids yourself, you’ve had a valuable glimpse into parental tunnel vision, where the only concern is preserving and protecting offspring.

In each case be ready with a brief, two-sentence anecdote, which illustrates your expertise. Don’t fret if you aren’t given the chance to use all of them. One may be enough.

Also, you’ll somehow want to make clear that you understand and accept the heightened level of accountability that didn’t exist 15 years ago. This is huge. Your interviewer needs some reassurance that you know what you’re getting into.

If asked for your philosophies on discipline and student achievement, you’ll want to have ready a few tidbits, which back up the importance of having high expectations. Be aware, however, that these are really trick questions—although your interviewer may not think so. There are no single right answers to queries like, “How will you go about raising your class’ test scores?” and “How will you handle a classroom confrontation?” Since it’s impossible to assess students whom you’ve never met, your interviewer will mostly be watching your reaction.

Finally, you’ll be asked if you have any questions yourself. “Tell me more about the makeup of the student body and what you believe my greatest challenges are” will indicate that your attention is exactly where it should be. Act eager about the prospect of at last having your own classroom. A bright, excited smile may make more of an impression than anything you say.

How can administrators and teachers learn to appreciate each other? They are so distant at our school.

That distance is due, I believe, to a lack of understanding and very little communication—complicated by the fact that one group not only has authority over the other, but also earns higher salaries!

The remedy is not “shadowing,” as many school districts think, because that only steals more time from everyone. Instead of using after-school staff meetings for reading announcements aloud, (pass out printed sheets, please), schedule true meetings of the minds. Small groups or even one-on-one discussions where administrators and teachers sit down as equals might begin with each one answering a simple question like, “How was your day? Tell me about it.” Then over time they might evolve into, “Tell me about your top three frustrations,” and “What do you wish we understood about you?” It won’t be difficult to come up with enough prompts to last a whole semester, and a semester is what it could take to develop any genuine warmth. The only rule should be the same one used in marriage counseling: Don’t interrupt; just listen.

One afternoon during my last year of teaching, my principal asked in the course of casual conversation my opinion on a couple of educational issues—and then remained silent while I struggled through my answers. It was a rare compliment, which I still cherish. I only wish we hadn’t been sidetracked, and I’d had time to ask for his thoughts too.

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